Turtle Bunbury

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Maria Edgeworth’s sister Harriet married my grandfather’s great-uncle Richard Butler, Rector of Trim and Dean of Clonmacnoise, Described as ‘a handsome man with expressive eyes’, he was born at Granard, County Longford, on 14 October 1794. He was the fourth of six sons born to the Rev Richard Butler (d. 1841), Vicar of Burnchurch, and Martha Rothwell, daughter of Richard Rothwell, of Burford, County Meath.

Richard’s memoir, published by his widow and printed by T. Constable in 1863 is available in full online. Educated at Reading under Dr Valpy, he entered Oxford in 1814. He received his priests’ orders in 1819 and was inducted as Rector of Trim where, according to ‘A Compendium of Irish Biography’ (1878), ‘his life as passed in attendance on the duties of his cure, and in literary and antiquarian investigations.’

He also helped his friend, the Rev. James Hamilton, run the Diocesan School of Meath in Trim. Founded in 1567 and regarded as one of the best schools in Ireland, it was housed in the remnants of Talbot Castle, where Jonathan Swift once lived. The Rev. Hamilton, the school master, frequently entertained Richard in his residence. One of the school’s greatest success stories was the Rev Hamilton’s nephew, Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805- 65), the renowned astronomer and mathematician, who went from Trim to Trinity College Dublin at the age of 18. Another pupil was Richard Crosbie, the balloonist and sometime member of the Pinking Dindies, who claimed he once climbed to the top of the Yellow Steeple at Saint Mary’s Abbey and somehow caused young Arthur Wellesley to cry! After the Rev Hamilton left, the school fell into decline.[i]

Richard Butler was one of the founders of the Irish Archaeological Society, and was particularly applauded for his philosophy of historic investigation in editing the Annals of John Clyne and Thady Dowling. He also brought out two editions of his work on the ‘Antiquities of Trim’ before 1840. In 1847, he succeeded the Rev Henry Roper (who lived at Bishopscourt, Clones, County Monaghan) as Dean of Clonmacnoise. He died on 17 July 1862 aged 67 and was interred beside the church at Trim where he had ministered for 43 years. His collection of coins, medals, seals and other antiquities passed to the Royal Irish Academy on his death.

While in Trim, he became a close friend of Maria Edgeworth through her beloved aunt, Margaret Ruxton of Navan, for whom she wrote ‘Castle Rackrent’. He later introduced Maria to his friend William Rowan Hamilton, who became head of the Irish Royal Academy.

In 1826, Richard Butler married Harriet Edgeworth (1801-1889), half-sister of Maria, and a daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (R.L.) by his third wife, the botanical artist Frances Beaufort, who grew up at Flower Hill in Navan. Harriet’s grandfather was the geographer and mapmaker, the Rev. Daniel Augustus Beaufort (1739–1821), who was Rector of Navan, County Meath, from 1765 to 1818. In 1790, the Rev Beaufort was presented by the Right Hon. John Foster to the vicarage of Collon, co. Louth, where he built the church and remained until his death in 1821. Harriet Butler’s uncle was Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort (1774–1857), the hydrographer and contemporary of Charles Darwin and William McClintock Bunbury, who created the Beaufort Scale for indicating wind force.

Clever, funny and high-spirited, Harriet Butler was one of Maria’s favourite half-sisters. Her mother Frances was also very close to Maria, who was actually two years older than her stepmother. Maria helped Frances raise and educate the six children she had with R.L.. Together they did much to keep the Edgeworthstown estate intact after R. L.’s death in 1817 and the subsequent financial ruin of Frances’s son, Lovell Edgeworth. After R.L.’s death, Harriet and four sisters were brought on a tour of London, France and Scotland, paid for by Maria, in order to widen their social circle beyond the limited confines of Edgeworthstown.

In 1842, Harriet’s sister Lucy married the astronomer, Thomas Romney Robertson, head of the Observatory at Armagh. Harriet’s brother Michael Pakenham Edgeworth (1812 –1881) was a botanist who specialized in seed plants and ferns, and spent most of his life and work in India; he also experimented with the use of photography techniques in botany from 1839, making daguerreotypes and photogenic drawings, some of which survive.

Richard and Harriet took in two children when very young, the issue of a sister of Mrs. Butler who had died young. I am unsure who these were as yet but Maria evidently valued Richard greatly. (The Edgeworths once visited Kilkenny for the ‘Theatre Season’ also).

Richard Butler’s older brother John Butler married Mary Barton, daughter of Robert Barton, and died in 1890. John Butler appears to have purchased Maiden Hall house and farmlands in Bennetsbridge, County Kilkenny, at the time of the Encumbered Estates Act (December 1852). The family purchased the Scatorish/Burnchurch property at the same time. John and Mary’s son George Butler (1859-1941) was father to Hubert Butler, the essayist and founder of the Butler Society, as well as Gilbert Butler, my grandfather, and two daughters.

Richard’s disciplined philosophy of investigation of history and legends was greatly admired by his great-nephew Hubert who dedicated the 2nd edition of his book ‘Ten Thousand Saints’ to him. He quotes Richard’s Irish legends text by Harriet JE Butler and its last sentence is powerful: ‘We would look upon these strange and portentous narratives as the hieroglyphic records of forgotten but substantial history.’ Hubert Butler and his wife Peggy were involved in getting Maria Edgeworth’s short stories The Purple Jar and The Most Unfortunate Day of My Life (re?) published and illustrated by their friend Norah McGuinness.

[i] “Schools of the Ríocht – Case Studies in the History of Irish Secondary Education’ by Christopher F. McCormack (2016), p. 12-16, Printed by Anglo Printers Limited, Drogheda, Co. Louth.

With thanks to Valerie Pakenham, Julia Crampton, Phyllida White, Ros Dee, Hollie Bethany, Richard Crampton and John Kirwan.